John Howard and Prison Reform

Figure One: John Howard
Figure Two: A Prison that was inspected by John Howard

What should change to the criminal justice system look like now?

John Howard (1726-1790) was a prominent 18th century intellectual and prison reform campaigner. (refer to figure one) His connection to Newington Green Meeting House stems from his friendships with Richard Price, whom he lived close to when he lived in Bedford, and John Aikin, the brother of Anna Laetitia Barbauld. Although, Anna Laetitia was engaged to someone else Howard still proposed marrying in 1774. At the same time Howard was heavily involved in Dissenting intellectual networks of the time and used these relationships to promote his prison reform advocacy.

The need for prison reform being an issue on Howard’s radar was likely to have been sparked by his experience of imprisonment after being captured on a British merchant ship off the coast of Portugal, where he was kept in extremely poor conditions. However, it was his shock at the conditions in Bedfordshire’s county jail, after being appointed High Sheriff of the county in 1773, which led him to take action. He went on an extensive series of travels to collect information and observations about prisons across Britain and continental Europe. Here, he documented abusive practices, such as prisoners paying jailers for their release, as well as the prevalence of dirt, disorganisation and diseases like ‘gaol fever’, a form of typhus. (refer to figure two) This led him to argue for reforms that aligned with his vision of imprisonment as rehabilitation based on personal redemption, rather than punishment through poor treatment. These reforms included individual cells, an improvement in medical care and an emphasis on religious education.

In 1777, he published a booklet, ‘The State of Prisons in England and Wales: With Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons.’ This has been seen as the inspiration for the Penitentiary Act of 1779, which introduced the policy of state prisons for the first time. However, the impact of The State of Prisons has been questioned, as well as other aspects of John Howard’s legacy. While Howard’s investigations may have provided information and evidence that was used to formulate parliamentary acts, it is also likely that parliamentary action influenced the nature of Howard’s research. For example, a bill on prison sanitary conditions had been passed in 1773, which was a key focus of Howard’s information collection. Howard’s travels may not have been a spontaneous act of altruism motivated by an individual ‘ahead of his time’ but rather a product of historical shifts. Howard’s contribution to the prison reform movement has also been critiqued because his ideas had limited impact on policy in his lifetime. As Sheriff of Bedfordshire, Howard never managed to stop the practice of prisoners paying fees to the jailer to be released and the plans contained in the Penitentiary Act of 1779- such as to build two new prisons based on its recommendations- were never carried out.

Nevertheless, Howard is often described as ‘the first prison reformer’ and his writings certainly made awareness of the issues in prisons more widespread. His legacy is reflected in the existence of organisations like the Howard League for Penal Reform in the UK and the John Howard Society of Canada, which continue to advocate for prison reform. However, the reformist approach of Howard and the subsequent groups inspired by him may not go far enough in addressing the systemic issues with prisons and the wider criminal justice system (CJS).

In The State of Prisons, Howard wrote “every citizen must ultimately accept responsibility for the Criminal Justice System of the society in which he/she lives”. This includes the recognition that the CJS is a reflection of the biases and inequalities of that wider society. The murder of George Floyd and subsequent anti-racist activism brought- albeit briefly- more mainstream acknowledgement of institutionalised racism within the contemporary British CJS. While there was a more prominent discussion of this issue in the United States, the 2017 Lammy Review into the treatment of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) individuals in the UK CJS found that the imprisonment of Black people in the UK was in fact more disproportionate than in the US. Black people made up 3% of the general British population but 12% of adult prisoners in 2015-16 and over 20% of children in custody. The review also found that there was significant discrimination against BAME offenders compared to white offenders in both adult and youth prisons, such as higher rates of victimisation by prison staff.

This evidence of systemic racism prompts us to ask the question: what should our responsibility for the criminal justice system look like now?

Linked below are three UK-based prison abolition and/or reform organisations that aim to answer that question. They can act as a starting point to learn more about taking action on the systemic issues within prisons.

  • Food Behind Bars – Food Behind Bars is a registered charity committed to transforming the food served in British prisons. They believe that food has a significant impact on people’s wellbeing and organise food initiatives that equip prisoners with knowledge and skills in the food industry that can be used to access employment outside prison.
  • Abolitionist Futures – Abolitionist Futures is a collaboration of community organisers that shares information and resources to support the abolitionist movement in Britain and Ireland. They highlight opportunities for abolitionist organising, coordinate campaigns and produce resources for reading groups and individuals.
  • Prisoner Solidarity Network – Prisoner Solidarity Network (PSN) are a group of people both inside and outside prisons that work to dismantle the criminal justice system and build a society based on collective care. PSN has established campaigns for the release of individual prisoners and on broader issues of prisoner safety and welfare.


Across Walls. Drafting and Editing the State of the Prisons. Available at: (Accessed 11 October 2020).

Across Walls. Parliamentary Initiatives Motivated Howard’s Prison Investigations. Available at: (Accessed 11 October 2020).

Across Walls. John Howard and the Penitentiary Act of 1779. Available at: (Accessed 11 October 2020).

Davie, N. (2019). ‘Feet of Marble or Feet of Clay? John Howard and the origins of prison reform in Britain, 1773-1790’, in Crimes et criminels. Available at: (Accessed 11 October 2020).

Ministry of Justice. (2017). The Lammy Review: An independent review into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the Criminal Justice System. Available at: (Accessed 11 October 2020).

The John Howard Society of New Brunswick. Biography of John Howard. Available at: (Accessed 11 October 2020).

UK Parliament. John Howard and prison reform. Available at: (Accessed 11 October 2020).

Vander Beken, T. (2016). Asking new questions: Lessons relearned from John Howard. Available at: (Accessed 11 October 2020).

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